Anglican formulas have suffered a number of erroneous assertions regarding their confessional application and breadth. The idea that Anglicanism is characterized by ‘temperament’ ( i.e., silence upon controversial points, avoidance of party disputes, classical tenets of faith treated ‘indifferently’, etc ) rather than ‘confession’ is an imprint carried over from the late Hanoverian reign of latitudinarianism. At times it is surprising how liberal polemics creep themselves into otherwise conservative Anglican apologetics. Looking particularly at the 1604 Canon we find the Articles of 1562 indeed possess a binding quality for both clergy and laity, albeit in different ways.
The Jacobean canons essentially carried over the same discipline given by Tudor monarchs. Within them we find canon 36 which reasserts the subscriptionism of Whitgift’s 1583 Three Articles: “No person shall be received into the Ministry…nor suffered to preach, to catechize, to be a Lecturer or Reader” without rendering an ex animo oaths with respect to the King’s canonical Supremacy, the 1562 Articles of Religion, and 1559 Prayer Book, “avoiding all ambiguities”. Together these three standards described the Church of England’s primitivism, removing all novelties from her faith and order. Hence, the Articles (with the other formulae) not only proclaim and guard the Creeds and Councils of the first five centuries, but they also refute peculiar Roman and Anabaptist errors by the same reason. The question, therefore, is not if the length of the 39 Articles binds conscience, but if the particular points found therein gird and prove the catholic faith?
“Length” was no more an indication of catholicity than the prolixity of the RCC today or the Genevan of 1536. Genevan confessions, irrespective of length (Calvin’s version was only 21 points long), might be criticized for inviting interpretations more typical of Zurich’s extreme iconoclasm. In contrast, the 39 Articles uphold catholic faith by approving the ancient traditions of the church. Regardless, all public ministers—whether clergy or professors—were indeed required to give unfeigned assent to a confession, and, in England, the violation of canon 36 resulted in revocation of preaching license for one-year if not deposition and excommunication.
While confessions were primarily intended for clergy and public teachers, laity were introduced to their principles by way of catechism and sermon. Although the 39 Articles never determined inclusion in communion (or any other sacrament in the Prayer book), it did provide an implicit framework for worship which men either endured or gave their “amen”—be it the liturgy of the BCP, the substance of divers sermons, or more advanced expositions upon the catechism. Wardens and vestry sidemen could file complaints against recidivist lay members who missed worship. Nor could members neglect the sending of children or servants to catechism at evening prayer (without pain of suspension or excommunication–canon 59). While lay people were never asked to subscribe to Articles, obedience to subscribing ministers (and their teaching function) was norm.
Perhaps the real difference between lay and clergy was laity was the difference in ‘heartfelt assent’. Where laity disagreed, they ought to remain publicly silent. The 1604 canons forbade laity to impugne Articles in private gatherings, chapels, or university (etc.). Those who spoke against the Articles not only gave answer to the scrutiny of ecclesiastical officials but stood chance (by canon 27) of excommunication (which often accompanied loss of civil rights) along with the brand of “schismatic”. Consequently, Anglican restrictions were very similar to the Genevan codes. Regarding the status of the 39 Articles, Canon 5 said,
“Whosoever shall hereafter affirm, That any of the nine and thrity Articles agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both provinces, and the whole Clergy, in the Convocation holden at London, in the year of our Lord God one thousand five hundred sixty-two, for avoiding diversities of opinions, and for the establishing of consent touching true Religion, are in any part superstitious or erroneous, or such as he may not with good conscience subscribe unto; let him be excommunicated ipso facto, and not restored, but only by the Archbishop, after his repentance, and publick revocation of such his wicked errors.”
Democratic ideals led to the eventual dismantlement of the England’s Protestant or Erastian system of tiered liberties and rights. Nonetheless, the canons testify to a confessional nature, from 1571 to 1865, where clergy subscribed and lay people passively received. The penalties and enforcement of these standards were little different from Calvinist churches, but unlike other Protestant realms, the substance of English formulae clung close to primitive, true religion. This was not according to ‘liberal temperament’ or ‘democratic compromise’ but by the great esteem and knowledge of both antiquity and scripture amongst English divinity.